The present generation may rewrite history but it does not write it on a blank page.” – Maurice Halbwachs.
South Africa is fast becoming a dystopian country as it finds itself adrift on a storm-tossed sea of political and economic uncertainty. This speaks to the betrayal of the priceless legacy created through the sacrifices made by countless freedom fighters.
South Africa is being pillaged, plundered and reduced to a virtual banana republic.
The reality of South Africa being at a political crossroads is rendered manifest by this political and economic uncertainty.
Arguably, the crossroads is representative of a critical point when decisions with far-reaching consequences must be made.
The words of a poem by Winona Montgomery Gilliland are particularly timely in describing the political and economic crossroads South Africa finds itself at:
Our vision is dimmed; we are tired
And long for ease.
We neglect our vital spark –
That burning love for freedom which once lit
Our blackest nights – and now we fumble
Confused and fearful, hearing our
Craven, we seek a leader who will raise
A torch and make our pathway smooth again,
Forgetting that within us sleeps a fire
Sufficient, in itself, to make us men.
Though Gilliland’s words were directed at America’s political malaise, they resonate spectacularly with South Africa’s current political state of affairs.
South Africa is unashamedly displaying a glaring deterioration of its political and economic stature of which many an African state, in particular, was unapologetically envious.
In his celebrated book On War, Carl von Clausewitz posits that “politics” is a contest of power over control of governance and resources, and not necessarily “governance” itself.
Similarly, King Alfred The Great once remarked that power “is never good unless he be good that has it”.
Politics tends to be about who controls power and not about how the political system operates successfully and this, in my view, is suggestive of the root cause of factionalism in the ANC.
In his poem The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost describes coming to a crossroads in the woods of New England. After considering his options, Frost chooses the road less travelled, a decision which “made all the difference”. Frost’s averment in this regard is to be construed as advancing a fundamental proposition relating to our being human in life.
We, as human beings, have the ability to choose and to manage the consequences of our choices. More often than not, the right choice in life isn’t easy or popular.
In fact, the right choice can require courage, patience, persistence, perseverance and even pain before one prevails.
Today, South Africa is at a critical crossroads. Unless tough choices are made to change the treacherous course South Africa has taken, the future looks bleak.
Addressing his people, President Igo Smirnov of Transnistria, near Ukraine, once said: “We must save the heritage of our heroic senior generation. Their feat will remain for centuries as a caution for our descendants, as a lesson of courage, of selfless service to the Fatherland, of fidelity to the ideals of good and justice.”
Smirnov’s words are equally germane to the would-be elected new leadership of the ANC, to always remember the ideals that shaped the founders of this mighty organisation.
Similarly, Maurice Halbwachs reminds us that “the present generation may rewrite history but it does not write it on a blank page”.
In light of this, one would venture to argue that even in times of turmoil and turbulence, amid the inevitable political vicissitudes and tidal waves, political clefts and chasms, the true leaders of the ANC worth their salt must rise up and show leadership.
Such rising up should be in memory of people like Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Dorothy Nyembe and all those who sacrificed their lives for the ANC and the country.
This will have to be done with the view of helping arrest the downward slide to end what South African politics has become; a messy, deceitful, treacherous and murderous affair.
In Chapter III of The Prince, Machiavelli observes that in politics as in physical health, in the beginning illness is easy to cure but hard to recognise; if untreated, it becomes, in the fullness of time, easy to recognise but hard to cure.
Nothing better captures this observation than the factions that have polarised the once mighty ANC. At the centre of these factions is money.
Teresa Nesbitt Cosby, in her piece, Picking the Supremes: The impact of money, politics and influence in judicial elections, posits that “money, politics and influence are just like water to the river – they belong to each other.
“Just as no man can control the forces of nature, no statute can control these forces in a purely political system.”
If there is one thing that has nearly brought the ANC to its knees with the resultant precipitous decline of public support, it is the conspicuous immersion of its members in crass materialism.
The period from 1994 to the present has shifted progressively towards material benefits and is best known as the era of the “politics of the stomach” or to use Michela Wrong’s words, the “Our Turn to Eat” era.
This is an era where the moral compass that guided us in the period of the liberation Struggle has been decalibrated – where an avowed distaste for individual possession of wealth has been replaced by the vision of our existence as a merciless contest in conspicuous consumption.
This has, unfortunately, resulted in a dislocated and disoriented conception of ourselves as manifested in our preoccupation with populating the machineries of our nation state with people who pursue narrow, parochial individual concerns, at the expense of the greater South African humanity.
The crisis in which the ANC finds itself is not only an indictment of our leaders, but is also a blot on the many indefatigable personal sacrifices that brought this nation to where it is today.
It is for this reason, therefore, that we should not be oblivious of the fact that blood was shed for the freedom we now have.
To paraphrase a time-honoured aphorism, “with great freedom comes great responsibility”. Sadly, this is something which our leaders are now failing to live up to.
It can thus be argued that, as Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci put it: “If the ruling class has lost its consensus – that is, is no longer ‘leading’ but only ‘dominant’, exercising coercive force alone –this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies and no longer believe what they used to believe previously.
“As such, the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
With regard to the current milieu in South Africa, the following could be said: it is stuck midstream, or at a crossroads, on a ridge.
It is against this backdrop, therefore, that moving forward, the government in office needs to adopt a more pragmatic, less ideological stance – a more rational, less emotional political paradigm, driven by the desire to enhance consensus-seeking and problem-solving as opposed to resorting to dispute-avoidance or the search for magic bullets to stem the crisis at hand from worsening.
It needs to be reiterated that South Africa is facing a crisis of trust; citizens seem to have lost faith in institutions, in political leadership and in business elites.
In consequence, today South Africa is at a crossroads, struggling between the end of a golden age which benefited only a few and the beginning of a new order which seeks to be inclusive in addressing the welfare of its citizens.
Arguably, for South Africa, moving forward should not only entail attaining greater equality, but should also restore a “moral” precondition needed to reverse South Africa’s current crisis which constitutes a political turning point.
* Shongwe works in the Office of the Premier, KZN. He writes in his personal capacity.